October 7, 2011

1956: Carmichael Returns Kickoff 106 Yards but Bears Prevail Over Packers

The Green Bay Packers were in the midst of a long dry period on October 7, 1956 as they hosted the arch-rival Chicago Bears at City Stadium. They were coming off a 6-6 record in ’55 under Head Coach Lisle Blackbourn, only their second finish as high as .500 (they had not been above that) since 1947. The team had a talented, if inconsistent, quarterback in Tobin Rote, one of the best receivers in the league in end Billy Howton, and Bobby Dillon, a fine safety. Some names that would become prominent a few years later were on the roster, such as C Jim Ringo, DT Dave Hanner, and MG/LB Bill Forester. Rookies included offensive tackles Forrest Gregg and Bob Skoronski, DB Hank Gremminger, and backup QB Bart Starr.

One of the veterans on the team was HB Al Carmichael (pictured above), the first round draft pick out of USC in 1953. In three seasons with Green Bay, he had been more prominent as a kick returner than a running back, and led the NFL with a 29.9 kickoff return average in 1955, including one for a 100-yard touchdown.

The Packers lost their opening game to Detroit the week before, while Chicago had also fallen short against the Colts. Owner George Halas had stepped down as head coach following an 8-4 finish in 1955, and longtime assistant Paddy Driscoll now held the position – although the “Papa Bear” still maintained a tight grip on the team.

There was a capacity crowd of 24,668 fans in attendance at the small venue. The Bears scored first on a nine-yard pass from QB Ed Brown to FB Rick Casares in the opening quarter. Carmichael was back deep to return the kickoff, supposedly with strict orders from Blackbourn not to return it if it went into the end zone. However, the oft-injured halfback was angry as a result of a shouting match prior to the game with an assistant coach who questioned his toughness. He fielded the kick and ran it out, hurdling over Bears lineman Stan Jones and breaking into the clear. In thrilling fashion, Carmichael went the distance, setting a new NFL record with his 106-yard kickoff return.

George Blanda broke the tie later in the period with a 29-yard field goal for the Bears, and in the second quarter booted a 41-yarder. Rote threw to Howton for a six-yard touchdown, and Fred Cone’s extra point put the Packers in front at 14-13.

Chicago put together a 10-play, 80-yard drive in which Brown completed a 34-yard pass to Casares and 27-yard throw to end Gene Schroeder. On the climactic play from three yards out, the quarterback faked to Casares, handed off to HB Bobby Watkins, and when Watkins fumbled, Brown grabbed it a foot off the ground and broke through left tackle for the score. The odd touchdown put the Bears ahead by 20-14 at the half, and they never trailed again.

Casares ran for a 14-yard TD three minutes into the third quarter, and while Rote again threw a scoring pass to Howton that covered 16 yards and made it a six-point game at 27-21 in the final period, Blanda kicked an 11-yard field goal five minutes later and Brown iced the cake with a nine-yard touchdown pass to end Bill McColl. The Bears came away with a 37-21 win.

It was a convincing performance for the Bears, who outgained Green Bay (462 yards to 267) and had more first downs (25 to 20). The ground game piled up 278 of those yards, with Rick Casares leading the way with 139 yards on 24 carries. Ed Brown was efficient through the air as he completed 11 of 16 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. 29-year-old George Blanda kicked three field goals and his four extra points extended his league record to 150 in a row (he topped out at 156). Billy Howton caught 6 passes for 97 yards and two TDs for the Packers.

The win was the first of seven straight for the Bears, who won the Western Conference with a 9-2-1 record, although they lost badly to the Giants in the NFL title game. Green Bay won its next two games but then suffered four consecutive losses on the way to a 4-8 record and last place finish in the conference, along with the Rams.

Al Carmichael ranked third in kickoff return average (28.1) while leading the league in kickoffs returned (33) and yards (927) as well as total yards on kickoff and punt returns (1092). His 1471 all-purpose yards placed second in the NFL.

The 106-yard kickoff return bested the previous record of 105, set by Frank Seno of the Chicago Cardinals in a 1946 game against the Giants. It was tied by Noland Smith with Kansas City of the AFL in 1967 and Roy Green of the Cardinals in 1979 before finally being broken, after over fifty years, by Ellis Hobbs of the Patriots, who had a 108-yard return against the Jets in 2007. Green Bay’s Randall Cobb not only tied the league record with a 108-yard return in the opening game of the 2011 season, but also knocked Carmichael’s return to second place in franchise history.

Carmichael played two more seasons with the Packers and finished up with 100 career punt returns for a 7.5-yard average and returned 153 kickoffs with an average of 25.5 yards and two touchdowns. While his career was not particularly significant otherwise, he went on to achieve another distinction as a member of the Denver Broncos in 1960 when he scored the first touchdown in AFL history.